News and Commentary – Birthday Boys! Becker 110, Bresson 115
Two giants of French cinema celebrate their birthdays this time of year, Jacques Becker on September 15—he would have been 110, and Robert Bresson, born five years before Becker on September 25 (though he would outlive him by nearly 40 years).
Bertrand Tavernier has been singing Becker’s praises in a series of recent interviews on the occasion of his new documentary, My Journey through French Cinema, now making the rounds on the festival circuit. “Becker is, for me, the great cinéaste of “common decency,” in the words of George Orwell, another of my heroes,” Tavernier shared with one interviewer in the current (September-October) Film Comment. (The entire interview, not surprisingly, is a blast. Of Stanley Kubrick, Tavernier recalls fondly, “I went to see [him] on Barry Lyndon, for an unforgettable visit to his house, where there were about 190 signs saying “Beware,” “Caution,” “Don’t Touch””—an anecdote that resonates with the Kubrick of one’s imagination and can’t help but raise a smile.)
Jacques Becker started out working for Jean Renoir, serving as assistant director on many of Renoir’s most celebrated films before shooting his own first feature in 1942. Of the films that followed before his most untimely death in 1960, two All-Time-Greats stand out: Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (1954) and Le Trou (1960). A summary of Grisbi’s plot would fail to do it justice—just read Roger Ebert’s marvelous essay about the film, and heed my claim that it contains Jean Gabin’s finest performance from a career that featured nearly 100 performances and spanned a half-century. Le Trou, which also transcends its genre, is a prison-escape movie based on the book by notorious jailbird José Giovanni, who lived to write novels only because his death sentence was commuted at the eleventh hour (his stories also provided the source material for two other great movies, Sautet’s Classe Tous Risques and Melville’s Le Deuxieme Souffle).
Le Trou is also notable because it was recognizable as dissent from, and perhaps even a rebuke of, the message suggested by one of Robert Bresson’s masterpieces, A Man Escaped (1956). Bresson, one of the singular figures in the history of cinema, developed a distinctive, spare, minimalist style that that has wowed generations of astute observers, including Paul Schrader and J Hoberman (who throws down this gauntlet: “Bluntly put, to not get Bresson is to not get the idea of motion pictures.”)
In a career spanning forty years Bresson left us only thirteen feature films, the same number as Melville, Kubrick, and (depending on how you count), Welles. (I would say I’d seen all fifty-two, but that would be boasting.) Of Bresson’s thirteen, additional candidates-for-the-pantheon include two films based on novels by Georges Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest (1951), and Mouchette (1967). As David Letterman would say, time to fire up the VCR!
Touchez Pas Au Grisbi
Diary of a Country Priest